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Analyst: Response To Russian Incursion Will Be 'Defining Moment' For NATO


Scott mentioned President Obama heads to a crucial NATO summit this week. The alliance is trying to deal with its biggest security challenge in decades, Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The U.S. rhetoric has been tough, but the big question is how far NATO states will go to protect Ukraine. The former Soviet Republic is not a NATO member, and Russia seems to be doing everything it can to ensure that never happens. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Obama administration has been alarmed by the steady flow of Russian troops and weapons into Ukraine, but the president is also trying to reassure Americans he won't be going to war over this.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.

KELEMEN: Still, he's making a point of visiting Estonia this week, one of the newer NATO members nervous about Russia's actions in Ukraine.


OBAMA: Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but a number of those states that are close by are. And we take our article five commitments to defend each other very seriously. And that includes the smallest NATO member as well as the largest NATO member.

KELEMEN: His top aide on Ukraine, Charles Kupchan, described the message this way.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Russia, don't even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: But where does that leave Ukraine? A top NATO official, Alexander Vershbow, who was once U.S. ambassador to Moscow, says the alliance has to think hard about ways to help.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: We're looking at how to strengthen our own defenses - how to deter any threat to our own territory. But at the same time, we do care about the security and the sovereignty of our partners, and Ukraine has been one of our most important partners. They've contributed to every NATO operation in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, has some ideas. He now runs the McCain Institute, part of Arizona State University.

KURT VOLKER: You should be sharing intelligence about everything we know about what Russia's doing inside Ukraine to help them out. You should provide advisers to the ministry of defense and the military. You should put trainers in to help them improve the quality of their forces. You should be providing equipment to the military so that they are more capable of taking on the Russian forces that are there.

KELEMEN: And Volker says NATO should make sure all of its member states top supplying Russia with military equipment like the two warships being built by France or anything else that could be used for military purposes.

VOLKER: The UK did a study and looked at all the dual-use things that they're still selling to Russia. Germany does a lot as well, and others do. That should all be cut off. There would be a NATO policy to cut that off.

KELEMEN: But NATO has been divided over how to deal with Russia. Volker says that Germany has, so far, put the brakes on stronger measures. Another former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, who served in President Obama's first term, thinks that NATO leaders are starting to come together and realize this is, as Daalder puts it, a defining moment for NATO and for the European security order.

IVO DAALDER: There is a recognition, it seems to me, that this is a fundamental challenge to the European security order - that that challenge needs to be dealt with - that it is not just a crisis we're facing, but a fundamental question about where we are going with the future of the European security order in Russia's role therein.

KELEMEN: And Russia should remember, he says, that its actions will only push countries like Ukraine toward the West.

DAALDER: If you're sitting in Kiev today and look at the differences between its security situation and that of a NATO member, all of a sudden NATO membership looks a lot better, indeed.

KELEMEN: NATO membership for Ukraine is not on the agenda of the summit, though, and likely a long way off if ever. The NATO secretary general has made clear that this is a decision Ukraine should be able to make on its own without interference from Moscow. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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